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NCAA Removes Cannabis from Banned Substances for Division I Championships; What Are Its Implications for Universities and Athletes?

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The collegiate athletics landscape is changing, as the NCAA has made what could be a major policy change: removing cannabis from the banned substances list for Division I college football championships and the postseason.

As reported by Spectrum News, that change reflects a shift in how the organization addresses the issue of drug use by athletes in terms of fair competition, not punitive measures for specific behaviors.

NCAA Removes Cannabis  from Banned Substances for Division I Championships

(Photo : PEXELS / Pixabay)

Change in Emphasis: Competitive Integrity

As far as Josh Whitman, chair of the NCAA's Division I Council, is concerned, their drug-testing program is to protect the "integrity of competition," although most people agree that cannabis products are not such substances that would give a school any advantages in competitions. The change falls in line with recommendations from the NCAA's Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, which recommended removing cannabis from banned drugs lists at all three divisions previously.

On the threshold of positive THC tests, the NCAA had already raised them back in 2022. The change was also fitness-oriented, not punitive, and was gradual toward a more balanced and fair approach to the drug testing of athletes. The latest change only serves to further solidify this new stance: one that places the health of athletes and the fairness of competition above strict drug policies.

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The Role of Substance Use Studies

After much deliberation, the board decided to take cannabis off the list of banned substances. The results of a broader NCAA study on student-athletes and substance use justified this decision: based on self-reported student surveys in the trends identified, cannabis use has increased from 22 percent in 2013 to 26 percent in more recent years. Even as it tracked this increase, however, the study also documented a decline in the use of narcotics among student-athletes: only 6 percent reported using prescription painkillers, with fewer than 2 percent without a prescription.

Its results reflect the shifting landscape of substance use among college athletes. The rise in cannabis use likely mirrors broader societal trends and changing views on it. Meanwhile, the decline in narcotics use is attributed to heightened awareness of painkiller risks and ongoing efforts to combat opioid abuse. It then goes on to show that the NCAA tends to act in an appropriate manner to these evolving trends by providing a safer and more fair environment for every college athlete.

Implications for Universities and Athletes

Although the NCAA removed cannabis from its list of forbidden substances during postseason competition, individual universities can still enforce their respective drug policies during the regular season. Having this two-tiered system allows space for each institution to tailor a policy that best suits individual contexts and values while adhering to the framework set by the NCAA during championships.

It is in the realm of possibility that such a policy change could relieve some of the pressures and stigmas on cannabis use for student-athletes. If this provisional disqualification based on cannabis use during the postseason does not exist, then athletes can turn more of their focus toward performance and fewer worries about penalties or the like. However, it is still important for athletes to know their respective college or university policies to avoid any conflicts in the regular season.

The NCAA decision also points to the larger debate about drug policies in sports. It is going to make other sporting organizations revisit their stance on cannabis and rethink whether the policies are at par with the current science and public opinion. The change could be a path to reliance on more liberal drug policies, mirroring athlete welfare and competing integrity over archaic measures of mere punishment.

The recent decision by the NCAA to remove cannabis from its banned substances list for championships in Division I college football marks a dramatic change in policy related to collegiate sports. The NCAA is making a very progressive turn toward a more just and healthy athletic environment through an integrity-based argument, highly competitive, and with an understanding of the changing landscape of substance use by student-athletes. This move, based on extensive research and changing social behavior, will hopefully act as a stepping stone for other sporting authorities to follow and could give way to change on a larger scale about drug policies within sports.

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